Risk in International Development

Bill Gates explains Why Jeffrey Sachs Matters in a recent article reviewing The Idealist, by Nina Munk (HT to Mahmud Naqi for sending me the article). The book (which I have not read) explores the successes and failures of Sachs’ Millennium Villages Project, which is highly contentious in development circles. The article is nuanced, but here’s Gates’ main point:

In the world of venture capital, a success rate of 30 percent is considered a great track record. In the world of international development, critics hold up every misstep as proof that aid is like throwing money down a rat hole. When you’re trying to do something as hard as fighting poverty and disease, you will never achieve anything meaningful if you’re afraid to make mistakes. I greatly admire Sachs for putting his ideas and reputation on the line.

I agree with the sentiment of this argument, but I think it lacks a crucial nuance. Yes, it’s important to experiment with new and risky ideas in international development and to accept that in so doing, some (and perhaps many) projects will fail. But the key is that the way we should measure risk in international development is not only by the chance a project will fail, but also by the consequences of potential project failure.

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Garbage bags full of burgers (or, Why it’s important to actually talk to aid recipients)

People in New York are unhappy about the Red Cross dropping off a garbage bag full of warm, broken hamburgers, apparently as part of their relief effort following Hurricane Sandy.

Besides the fact that the food was of questionable quality and cleanliness, it was not needed — “we already have hot food, why are they just arbitrarily dropping off hot food?” It was also donated to a small volunteer-run organisation in an inconvenient way and at a bad time — “I would have rather them contacted us to say, ‘We want to donate food, what is the best way to do that?'”

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Soap for Orphans: Not Helping Anyone

I just discovered Hand in Hand, a soap company. I love handmade soaps, especially the ones made with natural ingredients that don’t give me sneezing fits, and the local company I used to buy from seems to have gone out of business. I was hopeful about Hand in Hand – their soap looks really nice, and they use natural and fair trade ingredients. So far so good.

Then I saw link to “buy a bar, give a bar.” Oh boy. I steeled myself, clicked on it, and guess what: if you buy a bar of their soap, they ship off a bar of soap to an orphanage in Haiti – “to help save a child’s life.”

Unfortunately, this marketing tactic (because that’s what it is) didn’t do it for me. It has, in fact, completely dissuaded me from buying their soap.

There are several things I dislike about the project – one of them is the lack of disclosure on things like needs assessments and monitoring and evaluation. There are plenty of responsible-sounding claims on their website, but nothing concrete to back them up. They don’t even prove that they’ve donated one bar of soap for every bar purchased. It’s not responsible behaviour when one of your main selling points is the good work you’re doing.

These issues aside, the important point is that Hand in Hand probably isn’t helping. Here are the main reasons why I think sending bars of soap to orphans in Haiti is a bad idea.

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Another Minimum Standard for Aid Organisations: Thinking Local

It can be difficult to decide whether to donate money to an aid organisation or charity you’re not familiar with. However, there are some things you can look out for to get an idea of what kind of organisation it is. In a series of posts, I’m discussing a few questions I tend to ask when I’m trying to form a first impression of a charity or NGO (non-governmental organisation).

As I said in my last post on this topic, these are minimum standards, not guarantees that an NGO is doing great work. I do not advocate donating to or volunteering for any organisation without doing some serious background research first. But if an NGO fails to meet even these very low bars, they are almost certainly not worth your money or time.

Last time, I discussed the first thing I look for when trying to get a quick sense about an organisation: whether they use “poverty porn” – images that exploit the poor to guilt people into donating.

The second question I ask myself is:

Do they “think local”?

In other words, does the organisation have a strong and proven connection to the place they’re working in?

In my opinion, this can mean one of three things:

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Everyone and their mother should read this article – 5 Forms of Charity That Aren’t Helping

Cracked published an article by Mark Hill a few days ago called “5 Popular Forms of Charity (That Aren’t Helping)” (which I found via @Good_Intents). Everyone who’s ever donated, volunteered, worn a ribbon, or thought charitable thoughts should give it a read. As usual, for Cracked, it’s entertaining, but it’s also spot-on.

Here are a few highlights. But please, go and read the whole article!

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Follow-up on “Shunning Poverty Porn”

Following up on yesterday’s post, “First Minimum Standard for Aid Organisations: Shunning Poverty Porn.” My ever-brilliant and insightful sister pointed me toward Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” She very eloquently expresses the problem with presenting a “single story” of a people. Poverty porn does just that – it offers a single representation of the poor, that of helpless victim.

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Minimum Standard for Aid Organisations: Shunning Poverty Porn

There is a dizzying array of charities and NGOs of all types at work in developing countries. Many of them are doing great work, but alas, many are not, and some are doing more harm than good. (If this is news to you, stop reading this, and peruse a few of these resources.)

Happily, people seem to be waking up to the fact that not every charity founded by well-intentioned IDS graduates who just got back from six months volunteering in Ghana is going to save the world. But how do you know which NGO is doing good work?

Unfortunately, distinguishing the pros from the hacks is not an easy or quick task. However, there are a few simple questions I ask myself when looking at an organisation’s website that can go a long way to addressing this issue. I’ll look at each of these questions in a series of posts.

Let me be clear – these are minimum standards, not guarantees that an NGO is doing great work. I do not advocate donating to or volunteering for any organisation without doing some serious background research first. But if an organisation fails to meet even these very low bars, they are almost certainly not worth your money or time.

The first question to ask about an organisation’s website:

Do their photos show poverty porn?

When exploring the website of an NGO I’m not familiar with, the first thing I look at are the photos of the people the organisation is trying to help. Are they portrayed as empowered individuals? Or do they look like victims, passively waiting for help?

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